The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: commentary (page 2 of 77)

Prince Charming – Adam Ant’s Pop Apotheosis

Some years back I posted a piece called ‘The Prettiest Punk’, about the most fetching three minute wonders. Scandalously, Adam Ant appeared nowhere in the list.

Perhaps this oversight was an unconscious censorship – because otherwise none of the other candidates would have stood a chance. Or more likely down to the fact I was born a bit late for punk and so only remembered Adam Ant in his much more successful, much more made-up new romantic ‘dandy highwayman’ phase, which twas technically new wave musically, but very much new romantic visually, and ideologically.

When he transformed from a punk Cinders into a glamorous, baroque butterfly, drowning in lip gloss.

Born Stuart Goddard in 1954, and raised in an unplumbed two-room north London slum, this art school ruffian chose the punk name ‘Adam’ because ‘he was the first man’, and ‘Ant’ because ‘they will survive nuclear war’. He personified more than anyone else (even, dare I say, that other London boy made good, D**** B****) the open secret that British youth cults of glam, punk and new romanticism, although they officially hated each other, were all part of the same aesthetic rebellion.

One that eventually culminated (or degenerated, depending on your point of view), via the assimilation/proliferation of glossy magazines, consumerism and advertising, and the increasingly mediated nature of masculinity, in metrosexuality.

The tongue-in-cheek but seriously extravagant by the standards of the time ‘dandy highwayman’ promos for ‘Stand and Deliver’ and ‘Prince Charming’, both shot in a day and released in 1981 (forty years ago next year), were at least as influential in shaping the sensibility of the 1980s as Paul Schrader’s more ‘adult’ Hollywood feature film and young Richard Gere panopticon, American Gigolo, released the previous year.

‘Stand and Deliver’ was a pitch perfect pop song, noisily celebrating male narcissism and declaring, with wailing warcry, a national uprising against naffness – while holding grown-ups to ransom.

“It’s just stealing people’s attention. I’m a very big history fan of certainly the Georgian era and I like the flamboyance and sexuality and bawdiness of the time. I’ve seen films like Tom Jones and I grew up going to Saturday morning pictures and seeing all these other influences. I put them all together and Stand And Deliver was just purely grabbing people’s attention and using the whole sort of classical English highwayman feel as a theme.”

Adam ant

The promo, directed by Mike Mansfield, begins with us enjoying in close-up a fully-made-up but apparently naked Adam gazing smolderingly at himself in the mirror as he applies his ‘war paint’ – while the hunting horn sounds. The ‘threesome’ mirror-shot that invites the viewer to gaze on a beautiful young man gazing at himself is a trope which has become a cliche in the decades since, in a world where metrosexuality is completely mainstream and corporate, and social me-dia is rampant. In 1980 however, it was still an arresting vista.

I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention

Mr Ant is entirely upfront and personal about his ravenous desire to be desired. In fact, he wields it as a weapon. Instead of holding up travellers with a pistol he holds a mirror to their faces. (Perhaps inspiring 1980s Taboo nightclub ‘door whore’ Mark Vaultier’s infamous habit of holding a mirror up to hopeful punters, asking:”Would you let yourself in?”).

Stand and deliver your money or your life
Try and use a mirror no bullet or a knife

Tossing the phallic pistol and replacing it with a mirror is a provocatively fey gesture, as befits the ravishing passivity of male vanity. It also perhaps references the raucous Sex Pistols-style guitar chords that open ‘Stand and Deliver’ (who also styled themselves as ruffians).

Working class Adam completely embraced the nascent medium of glossy, aspirational pop promos, coming up with many of the grandiose ideas himself – as well as the medium of glossy, aspirational self-love. Both of which were of course abhorred by ‘proper’ punks and the ‘serious’ music press.

The devil take your stereo and your record collection (oh-oh)
The way you look you'll qualify for next year's old age pension 

Which is why, in addition to being enormous fun, ‘Stand and Deliver’ went to No.1 in May 1981, and refused to budge from its pole position in the hit highway for five weeks, relieving nearly a million teenagers of their pocket money. But then, unlike most pop singles, it did contain useful fashion advice:

It's kind of tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he's making

During the ‘hanging’ sequence (which was banned by the BBC) accompanied by the divine Georgian gibberish chorus of ‘Qua qua da diddley qua qua da diddley‘, we are regaled with knee-clasping stylised shots of stylised Blitz Kids. There’s more than a nod in this video to The Dame’s seminal ‘Ashes to Ashes’ promo of the previous year, at the time the most expensive ever made, which also featured eminent denizens of London’s hyper-cool Blitz nightclub, paying homage to their prophet.

‘Stand and Deliver’ ends as it began, just you, me, Adam and his reflection sharing an intimate moment: a close-up on mirrored glossy lips again, as if (re)discovering their own irresistibility.

And frankly, has anyone worn lip gloss and full foundation better? Blondie’s soft-focus kisser looked crusty in comparison. Even Tim Curry’s iconic smackers as pouty Frank ‘n’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show seem drier than a Weetabix discovered behind a radiator after Mr Ant’s spangly lusciousness.

If ‘Stand and Deliver’ was Adam Ant’s glamorous gospel, ‘Prince Charming’ was his shining apotheosis. It is quite the most perfect promo ever made – delivering him straight into pop cultural heaven.

The track has a repetitive, terrace/school playground chant-like quality to it, like some of the best glam rock singles. But unlike glam rock it doesn’t really exist separate from the panto pop promo. In fact, ‘Prince Charming’ is more pop promo than song. This is not a criticism. It is part of its historic achievement.

It starts with Adam as Cinders, his bandmates singing to him:

Don't you ever, don't you ever
Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome

It’s a touching image of male camaraderie in the British youth cult tradition, and reminds me somewhat of Bowie’s ‘When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out‘ line from ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

His fairy godmother turns up, played by camp icon Diana Dors – on a cloud, surrounded by toned oiled-up topless young black male dancers. With a wave of her wand he is transformed into a sexy Beau Brummell – something I suspect Mr Brummell never actually achieved himself. (Check out those tight breeches and the way they reflect the light – gadzooks!).

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Quite so. Male vanity only really works if it is unashamed and fearless. Ridicule is a form of attention, after all. And frequently a form of envy.

At the ball that Cinders/Adam attends, the chanting and the arm-crossed synchronised dancing is wonderful, but also slightly Satanic, in a thrilling Dance of the Vampires sense, despite or perhaps because of the childish panto theme. As Adam mounts the cloudy staircase towards a landing mirror, the revellers freeze and fade away to nothingness and our hero is left alone, with his Orphée-esque reflection – and our gaze.

He smashes the mirror with a handy candelabra, fragmenting himself, and we see Adam as a series of male pop cultural icons: the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), Alice Cooper, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) and Adam in his dandy highwayman garb from ‘Stand and Deliver’. It’s the drag sequence in Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ promo, but this time cross-dressing in the clothes of the same gender. Metrosexuality is, after all, about accessorising attractiveness.

With admirable arrogance, this slightly odd-looking, very tiny man from the humblest of backgrounds imaginable has, via the powerful transformative magick of pop, inserted himself into the immortal iconography of male celluloid stars. His desire to be desired made famous flesh.

Cinders has found his Prince Charming – in himself. At his coming out ball.

Mind, he is only really convincing in his dandy highwayman role and as Valentino. His Valentino is actually quite devastating – a revelation, both in terms of Valentino and Ant. Besides, the fact that he knew and understood the long-dead silent screen star’s importance as one of the first male sex objects, let alone coveted it, is an indication of his close study of the subject.

But there is a ghost in attendance at this ball. The ghost of Johnny Depp Future, who was only 18 when this video was made. Depp credited Keith Richards with inspiring his criminally successful Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Jack Sparrow’ character – but curiously didn’t mention Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman. Which, visually at least, it clearly references. Perhaps he didn’t because Ant did it even prettier.

Some of Adam’s (much) later looks also put one in mind of Depp. Maybe it’s because facially they do share some genes. Or perhaps it’s because they are both, for that reason, stealing styling tips off each other – seeing each other as their respective reflections.

Call me a biased Limey, but I think it’s pretty clear that in all essentials, Adam is the original and Depp is the copy.

I posted a brief piece about Adam Ant and ‘Prince Charming’ on this blog many years ago – but it seems to have mysteriously vanished. Much like the revellers at Adam’s ball...

Goodbye, Mr Bond – Hello Buff New World

Mark Simpson on how Sean Connery’s ‘overgrown stuntman’ sired a generation of young men licenced to thrill

So, Mr Bond finally did what Mr Goldfinger expected him to do. Even if it took 56 years.

This October, two months after his 90th birthday, Sir Thomas Sean Connery, the first, most definitive, most popular, most alluring, most stirring incarnation of the unshaken British secret agent, died.

Connery made six official and one unofficial Bond films. And of course, many more non-Bond films, some of them classics, such as Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), The Man Who Would be King (1975), and The Name of the Rose (1986).

But frankly, I’m not very interested in them.

It was his astonishing, revelatory appearance in the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962 that stunned and changed the world. And made those other roles possible. Although he famously came to detest Bond, seeing him perhaps as a kind of insult to his own ego or simply his own freedom, Connery’s appearance in the early 1960s on the big screen as Mr Bond was by far his greatest achievement – cinematically, culturally and sexually.

The plaudit ‘Sexiest Man of the Century’ handed him by People magazine in 1999 probably made him guffaw loudly – but was in fact entirely plausible.

And this was precisely for the reason that author Ian Fleming initially disdained Connery’s casting.

“He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond looks, I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stuntman.”

Ian fleming

Dismissing him as an ‘overgrown stuntman’ and also mentioning his ‘lack of refinement’ was code for class – Connery’s lack of it. Born in the slums of Edinburgh in 1930, the air redolent from a nearby rubber factory and several breweries, his mother a cleaner, his father a lorry driver, Connery was Scottish working class through and through. With ‘Mum & Dad‘ and ‘Scotland Forever‘ tattoos from his three years as a rating in the Royal Navy to prove it.

The name is Sailor. Hello Sailor.

He was discharged due to a duodenal ulcer – later claiming that it was his inability to take orders that caused it:

“I’ve never had ulcers since. Looking back it was probably my inability to take orders from officers – especially those I found had reached their position largely through privilege – that gave me ulcers.”

Fleming, who liked to be photographed cigarette holder in hand, was born in London’s moneyed Mayfair to an upper class English family, and rather than the school of hard knocks, was sent to Eton, the school for the scions of the ruling class. During the war he served in Royal Naval Intelligence as a Lieutenant Commander. He wanted Richard Todd, the smoothly handsome, stiff upper lip, ‘OK chaps!’, Squadron Leader star of The Dambusters (1955) to portray his alter ego.

Instead he got a Scottish, working class, bolshie able seaman.

And this was of course part of the thrill of Connery’s sado-exhibitionistic Bond – who exploded onto UK cinema screens a year before The Beatles released their first album. As I wrote back in 2006 on the release of the Casino Royale reboot:

Most working-class U.K. males in 1962 were licensed to marry young, impregnate their wives three or four times, and then take up pigeon-fancying. Wartime-rationing of food and luxury items didn’t end until 1954, two years before Elvis’s first hit and less than a decade before Dr. No was made – although sex-rationing continued for decades afterwards.

Connery, born and braised in slum district of Edinburgh, presents a Bond who, by contrast, is a vain, single young man jetting around the world and literally taking his pleasures where he pleases, living a glossy magazine lifestyle, albeit as an undercover agent. This lifestyle was not to come out of the secret-service closet until over 30 years later with the emergence of the metrosexual – a man whose mission was also to save the West, but by shopping instead of shooting.

Made trade – Connery in Dr No, 1962

If Connery’s Bond was proto-metro, he was equaly proto-sporno. Fleming’s phrase ‘overgrown stuntman’ also alluded to the fact that Connery had a body. Which was terribly, terribly vulgar by mid-century upper middle class British standards. And, for that matter, still is today.

And what a body! By underfed post-war British standards he was totally hench. Or, less anachronistically, totally Athletic Model Guild. Connery had been seduced by bodybuilding when he was 18, and from 1951 took on a professional trainer, a former British Army gym instructor. He was worth every penny.

Connery, AMG stylee

Connery even entered NABBA’s 1953 Mr Universe contest in London, but the winner in the amateur category was American Bill Pearl. Connery abandoned his pro bodybuilding dreams when he realised that he was never going to be as big as his steak-fed colonial cousins, later saying:

“Despite what many claim, I never won any awards. I appeared ridiculous next to the winner…. I looked like a seven stone weakling.”

That seems harsh, if typically self-deprecating. Connery would likely have fared better in today’s Aesthetic/Beach Body/Board Shorts category.

When 007 was 024, Mr Universe, 1953 (centre)

But his physical culturist habits did open up another career – one that would garner him much more success, cash and attention than bodybuilding could ever have done before the invention of YouTube, Instagram and, er, OnlyFans.

Odd job? – ‘Big Tam’ painted by Al Fairweather, 1950s

The Edinburgh College of Art was in the entirely understandable habit of employing buff lads from his gym as life models. ‘Big Tam’, as he was known at the time (Connery was 6’2″ tall: a regular giant back then), was not averse to attention, nor an easy way to earn a few bob – since leaving the Navy he had worked in various manual jobs: lifeguard, brickie and even coffin polisher. So he followed his gym pals into the the posing-pouched life classes.

(Around the same time the ‘Naked Civil Servant’ Quentin Crisp was also doing modelling for life classes in London – sans the bodybuilding.)

Licenced to thrill – Connery painted by Rab Webster, 1950s

The Edinburgh artist and promoter Richard Demarco was perhaps Connery’s first fan, finding his looks inspiring and his company enlivening:

“I was a student at the art college at the same time he was a life model. He inspired me. You weren’t supposed to talk to the artist’s models, but I got away with it because I knew him. He and I used to spend lunch breaks together… as an artist’s model he was the perfect example of a young Greek God.”

Demarco has also reportedly described young Connery as “very straight, slightly shy, too, too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis”. Googling around doesn’t provide much context, and it’s not entirely clear whether ‘straight’ here refers to his posture, plain-dealing or his sexuality – perhaps all three.

‘Adonis’ Connery painted by John Demarco, 1950s

Demarco claims he nudged Connery in the direction of acting, telling him to try out for a part as a guardsman extra in a production of Sixty Glorious Years in Edinburgh. Big Tam got the job, his first appearance on stage.

Likewise his participation in Mr Universe might have left him without a trophy, but it did push him up the showbiz ladder a bit further: another competitor tipped him off that the London Drury Lane production of South Pacific was looking for ‘muscular men’ to play US Navy sailor chorus boys in the Drury Lane production of South Pacific. Ironically, given how his bodybuilding dreams were dashed by the pumped Americans, he was cast because his size meant he ‘looked American’.

‘Yankee’ Connery stealing scenes with his furry pecs in ‘South Pacific’ , 1954

It was during his nautical-themed time in South Pacific that Connery decided that the actor’s life was for him. He was taken under the wing of fellow cast member Robert Henderson, an experienced middle-aged American Thesp, who gave him an improving reading list that included Stanislavsky, Wilde, Ibsen, Proust and Thomas Wolfe.

Despite his earthy Edinburgh accent wasn’t proving popular with 1950s British casting directors, perhaps fearing dreaded English assimilation, Connery wasn’t very interested in elocution – and his accent was to remain pretty much unchanged throughout his half-century career. Whatever nationality he happened to be playing. But he did take ‘movement lessons’ from a Swedish male dancer, Yat Malmgren for three years. Something that was to prove to be of great use to him in the visual and global medium of movies.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (BBC, 1957)

After South Pacific, he landed a series of small acting parts on stage, TV and film, mostly playing boxers, hoodlums, lorry drivers and welders. His first starring role came in 1961 in Adventure Story, a BBC TV play based on the stage play by Terence Rattigan about Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia. Both Rattigan and Alexander were famous fans of ‘Greek love’ – Alexander famously ‘yielding’ to his life-long friend’s Hephaestion’s ‘thighs’. But Rattigan was very ‘discreet’, and this was mid-century BBC – so there wasn’t much of that in the script, save as a subtext for Classicists.

(Camp trivia #1: Alexander’s friend/lover Hephaestion was played by future Dr Who companion William Russell. Camp trivia #2: The other great alpha male bewigged sex object of the 1960s screen, William Shatner, also played Alexander the Great a couple of years later in a 1963 pilot for US TV that wasn’t picked up.)

Connery in despotic earrings as Alexander, William Russell as his epic chum Hephaestion

Connery’s dynamic Alexander provoked praise. The Times observed: “certain inflexions and swift deliberations of gesture at times made one feel that the part had found the young Olivier it needs”. (You can watch scenes here.)

Those ‘movement classes’ with the Swedish dancer, along with all that bodybuilding in his early years, were finally paying off. When he met with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to discuss the role of Bond, Broccoli’s wife Dana overruled their objections.

“Women – and men – will love him,” she said. And she beckoned the pair over to the window to watch Connery as he crossed the street outside, and told them: “He moves like a panther.”

She was right, of course. Just as right as Fleming was wrong.

After Connery’s death last month, Dana’s daughter and – in a sign of the changed world since the 1960s – James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli released a statement acknowledging that he was largely responsible for the success of the film series. Adding that Connery had “revolutionized the world with his gritty and witty portrayal of the sexy and charismatic secret agent.”

She was as right as her mother had been six decades previously. It was Barbara Broccoli who insisted, against many naysayers, that Daniel Craig step into 007’s bespoke suit in 2006, in Casino Royale. And out of it into a pair of powder blue Speedos. Casino Royale saw the belated realisation of the sex object promise of Sean Connery’s Bond, squandered by his stodgy successors: Bond finally became his own busty Bond girl.

As I wrote back then:

But perhaps the most proto-metrosexual aspect of the first James Bond is that he is also a sex object almost as ravishing as any of the ladies he ravishes, almost as fetishized as any of the objects of desire he toys with: a playboy we would like to play with. Raymond Chandler might have famously described the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels as “what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets,” but the original screen Bond, for all his masterfulness, was a voyeuristic pleasure that men might want between their sheets and women might want to be.

Further reading:

Big Poulaine Energy: Medieval Men & Their Brazen Ways

“It’s a time when tunics are getting shorter and young men would have been showing off their legs…. So low-cut shoes would have accentuated and elongated the leg, all down to that long point.”

Men in fifteenth century Europe, their thighs and calves so swole and shapely in their medieval compression pants, were crazy for ‘crakows’ or ‘poulaines’ — a must-have pointy accessory for any young male keen to draw the eye.

Probably originating in Krakow, Poland, they were, according to an fascinating feature in Atlas Obscura, ‘long, carrot-shaped shoes that tapered to impish tips, some as long as five inches beyond the toe.’

This crakow craze was no short-lived fad — it lasted most of a century. In the middle ages people made the most of trends, since they didn’t have much in the way of media and advertising generating new ones.

A manly, strappy poulaine recovered from the Thames.

Their impracticality and their expense seems, as is often the case with fashions, to have been part of the appeal of these stupendously silly shoes.

However, their probing phallicism seems to have been the main attraction — and what ultimately prompted a crackdown on cracows, in a manner reminiscent of the Speedo Phalliban of Cape May, NJ.

Eventually, the English crown felt the need to intervene, in part because of the lascivious connotations that the increasingly extended toe-tips carried. “People thought the longer the toe, the more masculine the wearer,” Shawcross says. “But some people weren’t keen on that connotation.” Parliament equated wearing the shoes to public indecency, and stepped forward to put limits on a variety of racy fashions…

A sumptuary law was enacted in 1463 which sought to control the flaunting of ‘piked’ footwear, restricting them to a decent, Christian length of two inches — and also draw a veil over the shameless display of genitals and buttocks in tights:

“No person under the estate of lord, including knights, esquires, and gentlemen, to wear any gown, jacket, or coat which does not cover the genitals and buttocks. Also not to wear any shoes or boots with pikes longer than two inches…,” the 1463 law reads.

The killjoy sumptuary clauses didn’t however ban such male indecency outright. Rather, they made it the prerogative of position. Lords and above were still allowed big poulaine energy — and to show off their noble bums and packets.

I followed the link to the 1463 law and found a fascinating essay called ‘Gender & History’ by Kim Phillips, which lists the various sumptuary clauses of medieval England, and includes an explanation of the mention of genitals and buttocks:

‘These clauses reflected the contemporary fashion among young men, trends which in the case of the short jackets neccessitated the invention of the codpiece to cover the part between the two stocking legs and met with howls of disapproval from clerical authors. This had been most vividly put by Chaucer almost a century earlier, in the voice of his Parson: ‘Alas, some of them show the bulge of their shape, and the horrible swollen members, that seem like the malady of hernia, in the wrapping of their hose; and also the buttocks of them looke like the hind parts of a she-ape at the time of full moon’.

I had forgotten that passage from Chaucer, but not of course the Parson, who is a timeless figure of fun. How naughty of Chaucer to have his goodly Parson admitting that he sees the buttocks of young men in tights transformed into the hind parts of female monkeys at the time of full moon.

As Philips explains, the ban on suggestive footwear and provocatively high cut jackets and coats, was strictly for the lower orders.

‘Scandalous and sexually suggestive items of male clothing were reserved by the English sumptuary texts for the aristocratic elite, implying that their rank exempted them from the morality applied to lesser mortals. Sartorial excess and blatant sexuality were permitted as a marker of elite masculinity.’

Presenting yourself as a ‘sex object’ was clearly associated with power in the middle ages.

Philips also points out that ‘the realm of high fashion and sartorial adornment was not primarily focused on women until the “great masculine renunciation” of the early 19th century.’ Which ended up with the boxy bourgeois uniform of the suit replacing all that display and adornment — and women now required to be beautiful and sensual on men’s behalf.

Unlike their Italian or Scottish counterparts, medieval English sumpturary legislators were relatively unconcerned about the dress of women: the focus for them was very much on men and what they were and weren’t allowed to wear. It’s also worth bearing in mind that in a homosocial world such as England in the middle ages, the sexually suggestive clothing, the presentation of buttocks and packets, was for the most part for the enjoyment or attention of other men. (Excepting, of course, Parsons.)

Much like today’s spornowear, in other words.

I’d like though to end this trip into the middle ages with Philips’ citation of an Italian woman’s inspiring protest against attempts by the sumptuary laws of that country to control feminine apparel — and deprive women of the intoxicating power of being looked at.

‘Most illuminating is the Bolognese noblewoman Nicolosa Sanuti’s ringing conclusion to her humanistic defence of the virtues of women and their rights to sumptuous clothing: “State offices are not allowed to women, nor do they strive for priesthoods, triumphs, and the spoils of war, for these are the customary prizes of men. But ornaments and the decoration, the tokens of our virtues – these while the power is left us, we shall not allow to be stolen from us. Amen.”

Amen, sister.

Micro Tight Beach Buns

I should probably pretend that I have something interesting to say about this ad for Leorever ‘micro tight’ compression shorts, starring a young blond, pneumatic spornosexual (Michael Dean Johnson) working out on a beach in wet, super-clingy spandex, and covered in baby oil.

But, aside from noting that they had to shoot this ad on a completely deserted beach because it’s shot in the US and the US is Speedophobic, I don’t.

Truth is, I’m just sitting here doing this:

While imagining myself as the pants.

So I guess the ad worked. And not just with dirtly old homos like me. Desire and identification are very mixed up in a uber-mediated world – whatever your orientation. Spornosexual subjectivity is more likely to be split than micro-tight compression pants.

I have of course already ordered several pairs of these. Even though I know that I will only experience the bitter disappointment that I always do when I receive the package of spornowear I ordered after I saw an ad on social media.

It never, ever comes with the pumped-up, pliant pro sporno in the ad.

Oh well, I guess I will just have to get my saggy arse down the gym.

 h/t Bill W

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Smiling is the best medicine ??

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Micro tight buns fitness model Michael Dean Johnson’s Insta

Further reading:

Smart Spornowear

Bulletproof Boys & Snuggle Huddles

Mark Simpson on America’s manly embrace of BTS & Korean metrosexuality

‘K-Pop’ boyband BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, have been getting a lot of love in the US this week with their week-long ‘virtual’ residency on The Tonight Show. Their new single ‘Dynamite’, their first song performed fully in English, also took the No.1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 – the first all-South Korean group to do so.

Pretty boys. Catchy tune. Sweet singing. Colourful clothes – and hair. Cool moves. Seductive smiles. What’s not to love? They look good enough to eat – like all-singing, all-dancing macarons.

And no beards. In fact, they are so smooth that just watching them probably makes your beard fall out. So of course I’m very much in favour of them.

But the beauty of the world’s biggest boy band isn’t skin deep. WWE superstar-turned-actor and all-American beefy pocket battleship, 43-year-old John Cena – who is himself suspiciously clean-shaven – is a fan of the South Korean boyish androgynes and their sensitive message of ‘self-love’, coming out this week on network TV as a proud member of the BTS Army. 

“I got interested in the music then I got interested in what the music stood for… “They advocate self-love, they advocate ‘don’t be afraid of failure’, they advocate that you are enough. They are trying to shatter all the stereotypical difficulties and uncomfortable situations that we go through and they’re catering to an audience that is living that – young people.”

This is quite the endorsement, given Cena’s formative, muscular role in shaping the psyche of millions of American men who grew up with posters of the tough wrestler flexing for battle on their bedroom walls.

The Evolution of John Cena: photos | WWE

Cena isn’t alone in his manly adoration. Doing the rounds on social media is this YouTube video, in which mostly hetero young American men, express – or perform – their fascination with and love for perhaps (it’s a close-run competition) the prettiest BTS member, 24 year-old Jimin and his ‘innocent flirtiness’. 

The way US men seem to have taken BTS and Jimin to their bosoms is quite something, especially given the way the US, almost uniquely in the world, had a chest-beating backlash against metrosexuality a decade or so ago. Then again, BTS are not American. They’re ‘exotic’.

Nevertheless, one of the salient things about BTS is that unlike most other boybands, they seem to exist not simply for the titillation and wooing of female fans (though they do lots of that: see below), but are also a boyband for boys/men. 

‘BTS’ stands for Bantang Sonyeondan, Korean for ‘Bulltproof Boy Scouts’. According to band member J-Hope, the name signifies the band’s desire to ‘block out stereotypes, criticisms, and expectations that target adolescents like bullets.’ 

A feature in Metro UK a couple of years ago reported how BTS and K-pop are attracting fanboys – who claim that K-pop has ‘helped them understand themselves, and the concept of masculinity, far better’.

The well-kept, flagrant-fragrant metrosexuality of K-pop in general and BTS in particular has been documented by others:

The overall visual of K-pop is very appealing – a man, taking care of himself: having clean skin, being dressed well, using actual cosmetic products… that Metrosexual vibe… I know it’s very primal and many people say that a guy should be having a hairy chest and all of those things that make him look tough. Taking care of yourself is a great effort and a compliment for those around you.

The Korea Herald last year wrote about the ‘metrosexual image’ of K-pop, explaining it in terms of contemporary ‘genderless’ fashion brand strategy:

“With the genderless trend hitting the fashion industry, brands are rolling out lines of apparel that are not limited to a specific gender,” a fashion industry source told Kpop Herald on condition of anonymity. “Against this nonbinary trend, K-pop male idols’ aesthetic, metrosexual image matches well with what luxury brands are aiming for. They can easily pull off clothes that are sometimes too bold or colorful, or outfits largely considered womenswear with ease, while exuding edginess.”

For what it’s worth, metrodaddy agrees that BTS and K-pop are East Asian expressions of metrosexuality – using consumerism and aesthetics to widen the meaning of masculinity and nick gender styles, pleasures and feelings previously associated with femininity and/or stigmatised homosexuality.

It should be pointed out here however that for all it’s cutting-edge consumer goods success – TV and smartphone giant Samsung is based there – South Korea is mostly conservative and religious, and was under military rule until the 1990s. Military service is still compulsory for males – where homosexuality is illegal.

And although homosexuality is no longer illegal for civilians, attitudes tend to be mostly negative. There are few out performers in South Korea – despite the way that male K-pop idols regularly play-act homoerotic romance on stage. (BTS are particularly known for their snuggling.)

Or perhaps because they regularly play-act homoerotic romance. K-pop’s heavy flirtation with same-sex romance is almost predicated on the official disavowal that they couldn’t actually be gay or bisexual. The homoflirtation is anyway mostly for the female fans – who in Korea, as in many other parts of the world including of course the UK, enjoy creating homoerotic fantasies about their male idols.

K-pop actively encourages and panders to ‘shipping’ narratives – far more than the UK’s One Direction did. But again, those fantasies are typically based on two otherwise heterosexual young men falling in love with one another. If they were actually, openly gay then that would be about their sexuality, their needs – not their fans’. Likewise, K-pop idols are not supposed to get married and face a bitter backlash if they do. The homoflirtation of K-pop is a way of staying faithful to the mostly female fans.

But the cultural effect of K-pop is nevertheless to widen the meanings of masculinity – and to provide more breathing space (and cover) for those who feel oppressed by traditional expectations, as well as succour to sensitive wrestlers like John Cena. Perhaps even representing a kind of masculine liberation – albeity paradoxically, given the almost feudal relationship of K-pop idols to their powerful labels. And of course that of their fans and the rest of us to consumerism.

Perhaps that’s the significance of the David Bowie posters (behind and on the left) in the attic bedroom of the milk-drinking chap at the start of video for ‘Dynamite’. Though I wonder whether they shouldn’t have been posters of the non-singing, High Street David Bowie, David Beckham – who in his metrosexy prime had a big impact in Asia, becoming the most recognised sportsman there.

BTS are mostly, and quite intensely it seems to me, about what I have always insisted was at the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality and the sensual revolution it represents. Not ‘being in touch with your feminine side’, or having facials or using product, or even ‘loving yourself’ – but rather, the male desire to be desired.

Every member of BTS radiates it, but it’s there most powerfully of course in the beatific Jimin – and the thousand seductive ways he looks and smiles into the camera. Commanding your longing.

And BTW, in case you think K-pop slightly coy about sex, it also has its oiled-up spornosexual exponents, such as 2PM:

Special thanks to Carl Rohde for nagging me to write about K-pop

Further reading: